Homme et enfant is a monumental, colour-saturated painting dating from 1969, one of the most productive years of Pablo Picasso's entire career. It is a tribute to the ceaseless invention of his creative spirit during that year that, in 1970, an exhibition would be held in the Palais des Papes in Avignon showing a vast array of pictures that he had created - all in the space of a little over twelve months. Homme et enfant was one of the pictures shown in that exhibition, which managed both to shock and impress: Picasso was revealed as an artist who, while living in the relative seclusion of his home in Mougins, had been working with frenetic energy, creating pictures which pulse with the raw power of life. In Homme et enfant, this is amplified by the bold use of colour, with the canvas largely divided into sections of opposing red and green, against which the black, white and blue appear all the more dynamic. Looking at the vivid, incandescent palette and expressionistic brushwork of Homme et enfant, it is clear why Picasso is seen as a precedent for some of the more gestural modes of painting that became prevalent just over a decade later in the 1980s.
During the 1960s, Picasso's pictures often showed characters who had emerged from his imagination, a pantheon of playful figures sometimes based on himself or his family and acquaintances, sometimes mere caprices plucked from his constantly-inventive mind. In the case of Homme et enfant, the bearded figure, who seems to be holding a guitar or perhaps a lute, appears as an analogue of Picasso himself: his bold gaze holds the viewer's attention, the dark eyes reminiscent of so many of the photographs of the artist. Nonetheless, Picasso was shaven, not bearded: this, then, is a mysterious extension of his persona, related perhaps to the musketeers who had jostled into his pictures during the same period.
Picasso's bearded musketeers, for whom the man in Homme et enfant serves as an unarmed counterpart, had derived their inspiration from a range of sources, from William Shakespeare to the movies. However, those cavaliers also served as embodiments of a range of the ghosts of Picasso's own past. By this time, he was a giant, a world-wide phenomenon as well as an artist. His reputation was vast, and he was considered the most important living artist, a man who had changed the entire landscape of painting again and again during the Twentieth Century. Now, he could no longer look to living rivals for inspiration or competition, as the pioneers with whom he had formerly fought, such as Henri Matisse and Georges Braque, had died. Instead, more and more, he looked to the past for inspiration, aligning himself with painters like Rembrandt and Vincent van Gogh. Looking at Homme et enfant, the bearded figure serves as a parallel to those dynamic heroes, courtiers and entertainers of the Seventeenth Century who so fascinated Picasso; at the same time, he has an intensity about him which recalls the self-portraits of Van Gogh, who had also spent time in the South of France where Picasso had made his home. One wonders if the green that occupies the upper half of Homme et enfant is intended to introduce an air of the outdoors, as was the case in a number of Picasso's pictures from the period, some of them inspired by Van Gogh. This appears to have been the case, for instance, in Le baiser, a smaller picture he painted later in 1969 where a Van Gogh-like man in a straw hat and striped shirt is captured in an embrace with a curvaceous nude against a landscape backdrop.
The bearded man recalls another artist closer in some ways to Picasso: his own father. 'Every time I draw a man, I find myself thinking of my father,' he declared. 'To me, a man means "Don José", and it will always be so, all my life... He wore a beard... All the men I draw I see more or less with his features’ (Picasso, quoted in M.L. Bernadac, 'Picasso 1953-1972: Painting as Model’, pp. 49-94, in Late Picasso: Paintings, sculpture, drawings, prints 1953-1972, exh. cat., London & Paris, 1988, p. 94n). In this way, Homme et enfant may reflect Picasso's own anxieties about his father, who was himself an artist and a teacher of painting, an antecedent whom he had had to overcome earlier in his life.
In Homme et enfant, the main character, whose face is decorated with flashes of blue as well as the green, red, black and white which otherwise dominates the composition, appears to be holding a musical instrument, perhaps a lute or a guitar. Picasso may be invoking the Seventeenth Century, the arena for so many of his other pictures of the era, as he stalked an imaginary universe peopled by Rembrandt, the three musketeers from Dumas and their contemporaries. Is this some itinerant minstrel, accompanied by a wild-haired child? Perhaps the child represents a form of cupid. The theme of the musician was one that recurred throughout Picasso's oeuvre, from the very earliest days. A Spanish artist living and working mainly in France, his sense of identity was constantly present in his depictions of figures and still life compositions with guitars. In Homme et enfant, the character may be intended to represent a player of the Spanish guitar: certainly, he holds his scrolled and decorated instrument in a dramatic, high manner.
The theme of the musician, which reflected that of artistic creativity, would recur in a number of Picasso's pictures from this period, for instance in his Nu couché et homme jouant de la guitare of 1970 (Musée Picasso, Paris). In that work, executed on a canvas of the same vast scale as Homme et enfant but in a landscape format, Picasso showed a bearded guitarist serenading a reclining nude, introducing the world of sensuality and romance that so regularly appeared in his works of this time, often serving to celebrate his own relationship with Jacqueline Roque. Meanwhile, in another of the pictures on this scale in the Musée Picasso, Le peintre et l'enfant, painted only a few months after Homme et enfant, a bearded artist is shown in the company of a child with a similar vigorous mop of hair, wielding a paintbrush. In this way, Picasso appears to be hinting at the idea that, in both pictures, this cupid-like figure may be some embodiment of inspiration; certainly, the child is an embodiment of play.
The parallel between the concept of the artist and the musician runs deep in Picasso's work. Indeed, Picasso's works from the 1960s often explored different aspects of creativity. In his Mousquetaires, he showed the swashbuckling bravura of the vim-filled painter; in his musicians, he hinted at his own Spanish identity as well as romance. In all of these images, the main male protagonist appears to have been a projection of Picasso himself, as he vicariously thrust himself into the life of a younger man, now that he himself was older. Despite his years, Picasso was painting with an energy that was perhaps at odds with his age: the vast canvas of Homme et enfant, which is several square metres, has been covered in vigorous, expressionistic brushstrokes using a range of techniques, be it in the feathered backdrop of red or green, the dabbed flecks of blue in the face, the calligraphic eyes of the musician or the bursts of black with which he has rendered the child's hair. The image itself is filled with energy, with the ectoplasmic flashes of white which Picasso has used in each figure adding an electric vitality. This is thrown into bolder relief by the rare use of the striking background of opposing red and green. Picasso appears to have been tapping into the raw current of life itself as an act of defiance as he was made increasingly aware of his own mortality, not least by the deaths over recent years of a number of his friends such as Matisse and Braque. Homme et enfant, then, is the opposite of a memento mori: it is a proof of life, an emphatic blazon of vitality revealing the extent to which Picasso was tenaciously gripping onto his existence, and indeed revelling in it.